Gossip, reputation & local church protection

If you go into pastoral ministry, it is likely you will be on the receiving end of some unwarranted and untrue gossip. I remember speaking to one person who had been publicly and clearly caught indulging in such behaviour. Their defence was, ‘well, that’s just ministry!’ I suppose, in one sense, they were right. That is ministry. But it is an unpleasant and nasty part of ministry that does not justify the one doing the gossiping. If you become a pastor, it will happen to you for such has it ever been. but that doesn’t mean we have carte blanche to gossip about our pastor. Just as sin is always inevitable until Jesus return, that doesn’t give us any right to sin.

I have spoken about Jani Ortlund’s comments on this before. I haven’t heard better advice since. She says:

After almost fifty years in a ministry marriage, here is a piece of advice I wish I had understood from the early days of marriage to my beloved pastor: be willing to risk your reputation.

Leaders are always talked about. I found that hard to live with, because many times I disagreed with the current conversation. I wish someone had mentored me in what it looks like to release my reputation to the one who lovingly made himself of no reputation for us (Philippians 2:7–9).

Her whole article is worth reading on this very thing. But as sure as night follows day, church leaders will inevitably be talked about and their reputations often unfairly maligned.

With the advent of the internet, how much more prevalent these things are. There are issues about pastors that I would never have heard about, but I have heard about, because the internet has told me so. There are things about pastors I have filed away and believed, that I would never have heard about to begin with and have subsequently been shown to be untrue, because the internet has told me. Reputational damage can be done through our networks, through relationships, and now across the internet. I suspect very few of us in any sort of ministry role, and all the more those of us with an online presence, will escape. The rumour mill presses on unabated and one cannot unhear what one has heard. It is all but impossible, try as we might, not to form opinions on what we hear.

For many, the reality of gossip means there is little we can do about it. We must simply resign ourselves and our reputations to the inevitable. And, to some degree, that must be true. We aren’t going to escape what Jesus and all the prophets before him had to face. But I think the Lord has given us a means of dealing with this issue. It is his usual means of dealing with most issues: the local church.

The Bible is quite clear on the issue of gossip. 2 Corinthians 12 & 13 suggest this sin, unrepentantly indulged, is one that would signal a person as not a genuine believer. Colossians 3:8 is not silent about these things. Gossip and slander are listed among the downward spiral of sins in Romans 1 that mean a person has been given over to their sin and, despite knowing what God’s demands, ‘those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.’ But when was the last time you heard of somebody removed from church membership because of unrepentant gossip? When was the last time you heard gossip called out in the church in any meaningful sort of way?

The local church has been given the keys of the kingdom. The local church has authority on earth to pronounce who is and is not a believer and they exercise those keys through baptism and communion. It is for the local church to enact discipline against those who gossip and slander. Such discipline is not only for those who continue to slander others within the local fellowship, but for those who repeatedly and unrepentantly gossip about those further afield too.

The other protection the local church gives is for those of us further away hearing the gossip. All sorts of stories do the rounds, all sorts of comments are made against people in the church, particularly against church leaders. It is all very well telling ourselves that we will just ignore gossip, but the truth is it is nigh on impossible to unhear what we have heard and not to form, albeit tentative, judgements on it. It is simply what we do.

But the local church can act as a brake on such things. At the end of the day, whatever stories and rumours may come our way – especially if we cannot avoid them – we can ask one clarifying question: what does their local church say? If a person has come under the discipline of the local church, or even been removed from local church membership or ministry, we might conclude that the stories were true. But where somebody brings a claim or accusation that is roundly rejected by the local church, we have absolutely no business filing it away under the heading ‘no smoke without fire’. We, who are far away, cannot possibly have a clearer view of matters than those in the local church itself. If the church do not recognise the gossip or rumour, we have no business believing it from afar.

The local church is the guardian of the gospel in the world. The church exists to protect the gospel, to maintain its reputation and to enact true and right judgements on matters related to the church. If we have any hope of nipping gossip in the bud, it rests in the gift of the local church. Those who would gossip ought to be called to account for the reputational damage they cause and those of us further away would do well to heed the judgements of the local church who see matters up close. If somebody comes with stories and rumours, making damaging reputational noises or throwing around accusations of disqualification, we may not be able to unhear what we have heard, but we can look to the view of the local church.